High school backs, then rejects professional journalist’s request to censor student media

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

When a New York Times editor asked a Maryland high school to censor news coverage of his son’s student-government impeachment trial, school officials wavered a bit initially, but eventually supported the student journalists’ right to tell the whole story.

Earlier this month, Carl Lavin, a New York Times Washington bureau editor, sent a letter to officials at Walt Whitman High School demanding that student journalists turn over copies of newspaper and broadcast accounts of Austin Lavin’s impeachment trial, according to the Student Press Law Center.

Lavin’s letter to Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Frank Stetson expressed concern about student privacy issues, according to an Oct. 9 SPLC news release.

His request came after students had distributed the Sept. 28 issue of the Black and White newspaper, but before the student journalists had broadcast coverage of Austin’s trial on the school’s television news program, “Whitman Shorts.”

“Mr. Lavin demanded that the papers be retrieved and that a letter to the editor by a teacher (Russ Rushton) be blackened — essentially to have the newspaper censored,” Stetson was quoted as telling SPLC.

In his letter to the editor, Rushton, a math teacher, said that he was “saddened” that only 19 students voted to remove Austin from his position as Student Government Association president during the Sept. 14 impeachment trial, according to an Oct. 14 e-mail message from Black and White Editor Lance Kramer to freedomforum.org.

Rushton also discussed the meaning of academic integrity in the letter, according to Kramer.

The SGA held the impeachment trial to decide whether to remove Austin Lavin, a senior, from his position as student president because his social studies teacher, Gregory Herbert, caught him cheating on a modern world history final exam last June, Kramer said. SGA members voted 51-19 to retain him in office.

Despite Lavin’s demands, “Whitman Shorts” broadcasters never turned over copies of the show to the New York Times editor, said Greg Malling, “Whitman Shorts” adviser.

But school officials did persuade the student broadcasters to take out comments criticizing Austin that teacher Bob Mathis made during the impeachment trial, said Mark Goodman, SPLC executive director. “In fact, the TV students told me that their program first aired [Oct. 4] with a note that it had been censored by the administration,” he said.

“However, as the school started getting pressure from others and calls from our reporter, they began to back down and by Oct. 5 said that they would allow the TV program to run whatever they wanted,” Goodman said.

In an Oct. 5 meeting with students, Stetson told the student journalists that school officials would not censor any of their upcoming reports, Goodman and Malling said. Since that meeting, “Whitman Shorts” reporters have aired the previously edited portions of the Mathis interview on the show, Goodman said.

Although some copies of the Sept. 18 Black and White were “locked up briefly, all were distributed within a day,” wrote columnist Marc Fisher in an Oct. 18 Washington Post article. Eventually, the principal stood up for the student journalists, Fisher said.

“The good news is that Walt Whitman High School, which has a long history of great, uncensored student media, says it is still firmly behind an uncensored student press,” Goodman said. “They may have only temporarily slipped in this situation, and I hope that they mean what they’re saying now.

“The school officials seem to appreciate the importance of allowing the students to make their own content decisions and have allowed them to do so,” Goodman said.

Kramer and Black and White Managing Editor Karen Hauetman said school officials supported their right to report Austin’s impeachment trial without censoring the story.

“These … events proved that the school administration supports the student press and will stand behind us even in the most difficult of situations,” wrote Kramer in the Oct. 14 e-mail message. “We will continue to provide fair, objective and complete coverage of any and all events of interest and importance to the student body,” wrote Hauetman in an Oct. 13 e-mail to freedomforum.org.

In a statement e-mailed to freedomforum.org after this story was originally posted, Carl Lavin denied having tried to censor the high school journalists.

“Contrary to your report, I did not seek to have student journalists turn over newspaper accounts of the impeachment. Allegations to the contrary seem to be part of a campaign intended to damage the otherwise excellent rapport my family has had with student journalists and with the school system overall.

“I have fully cooperated with every student and professional reporter who has called me for information — and with every teacher, administrator, parent or student who has expressed an interest. The best way to counter these innuendos is to reaffirm and celebrate our shared commitment to common goals: integrity, empathy, freedom of expression and education.

“I have asked and continue to insist that the school district live up to its obligation not to disclose information from any student’s confidential file. I will continue to defend my right to express that view,” Lavin wrote.

Stetson did not return calls for comment.

The Black and White is published 13 times a year. “Whitman Shorts” is a biweekly television program broadcast on the school district’s cable channel and Walt Whitman’s closed circuit.

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